So you’ve recently acquired a great bottle of wine, but you’re not quite sure how to pair wine alongside a great dish, appetizer or slab of cheese. Let us help you out. The best wine and food pairings exist so you can enhance and expand on the flavor profiles of each component. Put more simply, pairing wine with food makes for better flavor on each side when done correctly, as opposed to consuming wine or food by itself.
Food and Wine Pairings – The Basics
Understanding wine and food pairings doesn’t need to be an incredibly complex subject. Of course, for many wine experts and hospitality industry professionals, this is an essential part of their profession so they must try to pair wine with food that makes the most sense based on the individual in order to be successful. In this article, I want to combine the basics of wine and food pairing with a deeper knowledge of industry practice but remove the snobbery. Not everyone who’s reading this is trying to make an impression on a Sultan with their knowledge on serving the right wine with an excessively fancy dish — you’re likely just trying to make your dinner taste better on a Monday night, which is exactly what I’m doing right now.
That being said, we’re going to dumb-down the essentials and ensure you have a GREAT lunch, dinner, appetizer or otherwise (breakfast?), using practices about wine and food pairing relied upon by fancy pants sommeliers.
So, as we mentioned earlier, pairing food and wine can greatly enhance the experience of social dining. Both food and wine can compliment each other, but it’s important to understand 3 things:
- First, not every individual has the same tastes, so this should be taken into account first (goes for food AND wine)
- Second, both wine and food can taste better if paired properly, as opposed to eating or drinking without pairing
- Third, there are a number of components that exist within both wine and food that determine a near-perfect pairing
Rule #1 – Acknowledge Who You’re Serving To
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already come across individuals throughout your life who have different flavor or aroma preferences when it comes to food and alcohol. This is crucial to remember if you want to serve the right dishes to either a large, or focused audience.
For instance, one person may not appreciate the refreshing acidity as much as you do in a young Northern New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. If this were really the case, and you knew it ahead of time, you’d want to choose a wine with a lighter acid profile and then decide on a food pairing from there. Of course, we don’t always know what our customers or dinner guests prefer on the palate. If you’re not sure, it’s better to choose a “safe wine” and a reliable food pairing that is essentially a crowd pleaser. More on the idea of “safe wines” as this article progresses… stay with me.
Rule #2 – Wine Tastes Better with Food
Sure, great wines, and meals, can taste great by themselves. But it’s also true that a perfect wine and food pairing can greatly improve the flavor profiles of both. What’s also true is that you shouldn’t screw this up, or you can make a great wine — or meal, taste like shit.
Whenever you drink or eat anything, the taste buds on your tongue respond and send signals to your brain about the different flavor components. Sugar, salt, acid and other flavor components all play a role in determining whether you like or dislike a particular food or wine item. The initial taste also sets a precedent for proceeding flavors. Essentially, the first taste you take gears your mind up for a following that should be somewhat similar. Fellow wine professionals often compare this to brushing your teeth and then drinking orange juice. It’s very unpleasant. Wine and food pairings work similarly. If you pair an overly acidic wine with a mild food, the food is going to taste bland, boring, or just plain bad.
Taking this a step further, you shouldn’t drink or eat anything that may impair your ability to smell or taste a follow up sip of wine or bite of food. IE: If you cover your taste buds in sugar after licking a lollipop, you’re inhibiting your ability to get a real sense of whatever it is you drink or eat next.
Rule #3 – Pairing Individual Wine and Food Components
I’m going to try to simplify this as best I can. Unfortunately, wine tasting is intricate and often subjective, but I’ll keep this as high level as possible.
How Salt in Foods Affect Wine Taste
When it comes to wine and food pairings, salt is actually a great thing, and is one aspect of the “safe food and wine pairings” we discussed earlier. If you know you’re about to consume a lighter-bodied wine, salt actually gives it a bigger body. At the same time, if you’re about to drink a bitter or relatively acidic wine, salt in food helps to soften it and bring balance back to the pairing. From a more subjective perspective, salty foods and cheeses actually pair quite nicely with sweet wines, as they help to enhance the sweet flavor already present in the wine.
How Acid Affects Wine & Food Taste
For the most part, acidic foods can be used to the pairer’s advantage. Not unlike salt, it helps to increase the perception of body in a wine, in addition to the perception of fruit and or sweetness. At the same time, acidic dishes also soften the acid in wines by leveling the two out. This is why pairing citrus based seafood can be a powerful pairing alongside an acidic white wine, like many Sauvignon Blanc’s, for example.
What’s most crucial when it comes to acid in wine and food is that the two are on similar levels. A low acid wine paired with a high acid dish will make the wine taste uninteresting and flat. It goes the other way as well.
How Sweetness in Foods Affect Wine Flavor
Consuming sweet food will almost always enhance the perception of acidity, tannins and alcohol present within a wine. At the same time, it decreases the sense of body, fruit and or sweetness in a wine. If a wine is on the sweeter side, your safest bet is to pair it with a food that is nearly as sweet, otherwise a sweet dish will make a dry wine taste overly acidic.
How Savory Flavors Affect Wine Taste
Savory and earthy flavors in foods, such as mushroom, can make a wine appear to taste more bitter and enhance their tannic structure, acidity and alcohol intensity. Industry professionals dub this flavor as “umami.” You’ve probably experienced it if you eat a lot of Chinese food containing MSG or if you eat a lot of mushrooms. This is a difficult tasting component, because it’s hard to single out on its own. Usually, it’s accompanied by salty nuances or acidic nuances, which softens umami tones. For simplicities sake, many argue that umami-based foods should be avoided in order to simplify a pairing. But if you want to step your game up and test your skills, pairing umami styled foods can potential yield an epic wine and food pairing.
Most of the time, when you age or dry foods out, such as cured meats or aged cheeses, their umami level will increase. Wines that pair well with these foods are include reds that are very rich in body, higher in acid and tannin. Cheeses like Parmesan, smoked salmon, asparagus, eggs, mushroom and tomato-based dishes will go well alongside an age-worthy, rich and fruity wine like a Barolo. In fact, the umami flavor is actually considered the “fifth-taste” when it comes to wine and food pairing. Not even all industry professionals know or even discuss it, but the Chinese have for over 1,200 years.
Really want to understand umami flavor? We learned to taste its essence by microwaving your typical diced mushroom and then comparing it to the same mushroom un-microwaved.
How Tannins Affect Food Flavors
Tannins are a polyphenolic compound that add the reaction of astringency to the palate and the perception of bitterness to the mouth-feel after tasting wine. You’ll notice more bitterness towards the back of your tongue and more astringency — otherwise known as the sensation of grittyness — along your gums. Bitter type foods should be paired alongside most white wines, or red wines that are low in tannins, such as a Pinot Noir. This helps to neutralize the sensation of bitterness on the palate.
How Spice in Food Affects Wine Taste
Not unlike tannins, which apply to the sense of touch or feel, chilli type heat and certain spicy foods trigger reactions on the palate that aren’t associated with taste, yet play a part in determining the flavor of a pairing. The effect of this type of spice varies greatly by individual. Chilli type spice will enhance the feeling of bitterness, the flavor of acid and the intensity of alcohol on the palate. It also can make a wine appear lighter-bodied, flat and far less fruity or sweet than it actually is. Higher alcohol in wine will actually enhance these perceptions. That being said, consider wines that aren’t intensely alcoholic, tannic or acidic to help bring balance to the wine and food pairing.
“Safe Wine and Food Pairings”
I put this in quotations because it can’t be 100% guaranteed given individual flavor preferences. But, these are good best practices.
- The most simple, un-oaked styles of dry wine are actually the easiest to pair alongside any main course of appetizer. That being said, look at your classic grocery store dry red and white wines to pair alongside a number of dishes. While these simple wines may work well alongside most foods, at the same time they won’t add much to enhance either side.
- As we mentioned earlier, foods that are high acidity should be paired with wines that are somewhat equal in acidic content. If one side outweighs the other, it will make its potential partner appear boring and flat.
Rules of Thumb:
- Complex, acidic, tannic and alcoholic wines can be the most difficult to pair. But, if done successfully based on the principles we discussed earlier, can yield the best wine and food pairing results. That being said, these styles of wines should be paired with equally complex dishes.
- Sweet dishes, or foods that have a lot of sugar, should be paired with sweet wines.
- Foods with substantial hints of umami should be paired with fruity wines
- Bitter foods should be paired with low-tannin wines
- Hot spice and chilli spice should be paired with wines that are low in alcohol and tannin. Fruity and sweet wines also work well alongside excessively spicy foods as they help soften the perception of chilli spice.
Recommended Wine and Food Pairing Recipes & Concepts
Please note, these grape variety pairings may vary, as the final wine product may vary based on terroir and climate conditions. These are general best practices, with some exceptions. Please see the end of the article for links with more specific climate related wine and food pairing ideas and recipes.
Low Acid or Neutral White & Sparkling Wines (Such as Pinot Grigio, Cava, Champagne, Chenin Blanc)
Food (Sushi, White Fish, Salads, Chicken, Fresh Veggies):
Cheese (Soft & Fresh Styles, Minimal or No Aging):
Full-bodied, Acidic, Sweet and or Dry Complex White Wines (Such as Viognier, Riesling or Oaked Chardonnay)
Food (Heavier-bodied Fish, Grilled Chicken, Shellfish):
- Blackened Mahi-mahi Fish Tacos with Avocado Lime Sauce
- Garlic Oyster Rockefeller Recipe
- Honey Teriyaki Salmon Recipe (on the sweeter-side, consider off-dry whites or fruity low-tannin reds)
- Crispy Mango-Habanero Fried Oysters
Cheese (Semi-hard, Light to Medium Aged):
- Fresh Cheddar
- Monterey Jack
Light-bodied, Dry Red Wines (Such as Pinot Noir or Gamay (Beaujolais))
Food (Lean Meats, Game, Heavy-bodied Fish, Chicken, Grilled Veggies):
- Pan-seared Veal Chops
- Zesty Swordfish Kabob Recipe
- Buffalo Chicken-dip Appetizer
- Marinated Skirt Steak Recipe
Cheese (Medium-aged, Semi-hard, Semi-stinky):
Medium-bodied Savory, & Spicy Red Wine (Such as Merlot, Sangiovese, Pinotage & Rioja Blends)
Food (Pork, Lamb, Lean Meats, Barbecue, Tomato-based Pasta, Grilled Veggies):
- Pulled Pork Paprika Sandwiches
- Lechon Asado con Mojo Sauce (Cuban-style crisp roast pork — a personal favorite here)
- Moroccan Spiced Lamb Meatballs in Cumin and Coriander
Cheese (Medium-aged or Aged Semi-hard or Hard):
- Parmigiano Reggiano
Full-bodied, Tannic, Acidic Red Wine Varietals or Blends (Such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec or Bordeaux)
Food (Meat, Savory & Spicy Pasta, Barbecue, Ribs, Ground Beef Pizza):
- Red Wine Braised Brisket Recipe
- Bacon-wrapped Hamburger Appetizer Recipe
- Seared & Peppered Filet Mignon
Cheese (Hard, Stinky or Aged):
- Aged Cheddar
- Aged Gouda
- Blue Cheese
It’s impossible to span the entire map of wine and food pairings by grape variety or wine style in just one article. That being said, take a look at some of our recommended food and wine pairing articles by grape variety as seen below: